Women's hockey raising the bar in 2018-19

Queen’s look to make third consecutive appearance at U Sports Championships 

Head Coach Matt Holmberg is returning for his tenth season as head coach.
Head Coach Matt Holmberg is returning for his tenth season as head coach.

The past two seasons for the women’s hockey team have been a constant flow of progress. This season, there’s no desire to take a step back.

“Our mission, our vision, our dream this year is to not only get to nationals, but to compete for a medal at nationals,” Head Coach Matt Holmberg told The Journal before an early morning skate with his team on Tuesday.

Queen’s has participated in the U Sports national championships for two consecutive years. The first came by way of an automatic berth when they hosted the tournament in 2016-17, and the second by officially qualifying through an OUA Finals appearance last season. At the national championships in 2017-18, they’d lose both their pair of games to Manitoba and St. Francis Xavier.

Holmberg said he’s a big believer in setting tangible targets for his team this year. Reflecting on last season’s loss in the OUA finals to Western, Holmberg thought the Gaels had a slight mental lapse after qualifying for nationals.

“We already knew we were going to nationals before we played Western in the finals and it may have mentally stunted our preparation for that game. We achieved our goal for the season before the OUA finals,” he said. “What was left? What was next?”

At the moment, the women’s team has a number of steps to take before they can begin thinking about their long-term goals. The end of last season marked  a significant turnover by a number of departing players—most notably within their defensive core. 

Previous captain Jessica Wakefield, Micaela Smith and Amber Sealey will all be missing on the blue line due to graduation, while three rookies will take their places.

Now, 14 of the Gaels’ 24 players are in their first or second year.

Holmberg said while it’s hard to see so many veteran faces go, much of the team’s youth has the experience necessary to make a run for a national medal. Because the vast majority of the team has played in a national championship tournament—eight of the Gaels have experienced two—he’s less concerned with their experience on a high-pressure stage.

“Being at nationals for the past two years has served the players with the experience, the pace of play, the types of teams that make it to nationals,” Holmberg said.

There’s an endless number of roadblocks in the Gaels’ way to a gold medal. In one of the most competitive leagues in the OUA, Holmberg said there’s no guaranteed wins against any team this season.

“Every point is going to be well-earned and well-fought. I can’t really think of a weak sister in any of the 13 teams in our league,” he said. “It’s that crazy. There are going to be really good teams that don’t make the playoffs.”

The Gaels are set to move headlong into the regular season this weekend, where they’ll host the Laurentian Voyageurs and Nipissing Lakers on Friday and Saturday, respectively, at the Memorial Centre in Kingston. Nipissing will be Queen’s first big test of the year, as the Lakers ended five points short of Queen’s last season.

With the day-to-day grind of the 24-game season at their doorstep, Holmberg said  the Gaels are keeping their focus on weekly tasks. As such, they’ve placed their long-term goals on the back-burner.

“Since our team retreat in August, we haven’t really thought about it,” he said “We’ve talked about our process goals that don’t tie into wins or losses.”

With that in hand, Holmberg is firm in his belief that the Gaels can prove themselves as one of the OUA’s biggest threats.

“If the team works hard, stays united, then it’s possible at the end of the year we have a shot at going beyond what this team has ever accomplished before.”

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